Allies and Foes of California's Marijuana Legalization Proposition

Thursday, 23 September 2010 14:39 By Nadia Prupis, t r u t h o u t | Report | name.

Allies and Foes of California
(Photo: Fibonacci Blue / Flickr)

A leader of the country's drug reform movement, California has helped standardize marijuana use through policies at once progressive and compromising. Since the passage of Proposition 215 in 1996, which legalized medical marijuana and influenced many neighboring states to do the same, California has come closer and closer to officially equating cannabis use with alcohol and tobacco consumption - but it's been an uphill battle.

This year, the state's characteristically passionate atmosphere centers around Proposition 19, a ballot initiative to decriminalize marijuana at a level that is unprecedented in the United States. If approved by voters on November 2, Prop. 19 will allow adults 21 and over to possess and grow limited amounts of marijuana for personal use and enable local governments to tax retail cannabis production, among other regulations. Cities and counties could choose not to comply with the measure and marijuana would remain illegal under federal law.

Recent polls from mid-August to early September show a small lead for the initiative, but as with any campaign that addresses a long-stigmatized issue, Prop. 19 is surrounded by a wide range of pro- and anti-legalization arguments.

Political opponents warn of an Anslinger-esque dystopia fraught with delirious school bus drivers and a sudden onslaught of eager new growers and smokers stinking up our neighborhoods. The California Chamber of Commerce reports that employers would be unable to prevent their workers from smoking on the job, while some police unions claim that Prop. 19 doesn't define "driving under the influence." Senator Dianne Feinstein, who called Prop. 19 a "jumbled legal nightmare" in July, joined Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca in co-chairing No on Proposition 19, the official campaign to defeat the initiative in November. A handful of politicians who happen to be in the running for Governor and Attorney General of California have also spoken out against the measure, and the alcohol industry is now openly funding No on Proposition 19.

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But the nonpartisan think tank Legislative Analyst's Office (LAO) recently released a report on Prop. 19 that refutes a number of these claims. LAO explains that "employers would retain existing rights to address consumption of marijuana that impairs an employee's job performance," referring to the mandate set by the Drug-Free Workplace Act of 1988, which requires companies receiving federal funds to test their employees and prohibit the use of marijuana. Private companies, as they have throughout history, are free to set their own drug policies.

LAO also states that Prop 19 "would not change existing laws that prohibit driving under the influence of drugs." Currently, California DUI laws punish drivers who are found under the influence of "any alcoholic beverage or drug," which gives police officers discretion in determining what constitutes impairment. The vague language often derided by critics comes more from long-standing state vehicle codes than the statutes in Prop. 19 - codes that have never, until now, had their standards for measuring impairment questioned by police organizations.

Opponents have also found a surprising ally in Stoners Against Prop. 19 (often referred to by the ironic nickname "Stoners Against Legalization"). In a surreal reflection of the politicians who encourage fear of smokers, Stoners Against Prop. 19 appeals to the cannabis community's fear of government. Weed connoisseur and columnist Dragonfly de la Luz is arguably the best known of the group - and not just because the majority of them are anonymous, as noted on Stop19.com.

De la Luz first stated her opposition to Prop. 19 in a July 10 blog post, listing a number of "glaring myths" about the measure, including the belief that it will help end the War on Drugs and free up billions of wasted government funds.

According to de la Luz, even if Prop. 19 passes, "the federal drug war will continue to drone on... contrary to public assumption, the drug war in California will not end, nor will it be impacted much by the initiative. This is because the initiative doesnít call for full legalization; it proposes to legalize possession of only up to one ounce. And in California, there is no 'drug war' being fought against possession of up to one ounce, because marijuana is already decriminalized. The penalty for carrying an ounce is a mere citation and maximum $100 fine."

But de la Luz neglects to mention that even under "decriminalization," possession of an ounce of marijuana in California remains a misdemeanor - and the arguably minor fine is accompanied by court fees and a two-year criminal record. According to the California Criminal Justice Statistics Center, over 60,000 Californians are prosecuted for misdemeanor possessions every year, more than three-quarters of whom are over the age of 21. Under Prop. 19, possession of an ounce would surpass its limitations under decriminalization and become fully legal, protecting Californians over 21 from facing citations, fines, and drug convictions altogether - and at 60,000 cases a year, saving courts at least $6 million in hearings.

And that's just misdemeanors. Apart from the 60,000 caught with an ounce or less, an additional 17,000 were arrested in 2009 for cannabis-related felonies, including the cultivation of any amount of marijuana - even for personal use. One of the biggest changes Californians would see under Prop. 19 is the decriminalization of cultivation. According to the initiative, adults over the age of 21 would have the right to grow marijuana for personal use in a 5'x5' square space. State and local law enforcement agencies would no longer be able to seize or destroy personal crops of marijuana that fit the specifications, nor would cultivation in compliance with the measure be an arrestable offense.

According to the LAO report, reductions in state and local correctional costs could save tens of millions of dollars annually by reducing the number of marijuana-related incarcerations, probations, and parole supervisions.

Meanwhile, historian Hector Aguilar Camin and former foreign minister of Mexico Jorge G. Castaneda argue that Prop. 19 could, in fact, help end the violent criminal drug market that affects citizens in both countries. In an article for the Washington Post, Camin and Castaneda write that if California passes Prop. 19, Mexico's government will have two viable options for ending the drug war; either to "proceed unilaterally with legalization - with California but without Washington - or to hold off, while exploiting California's move to more actively lobby the US government for wider changes in drug policy."

Paul Armentano, deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), considers groups like Stoners Against Prop. 19 a fringe movement similar to the birthers. "The irony in my mind is that we have an election in November in California, and Meg Whitman could become governor. And more importantly, [LA District Attorney] Steve Cooley, who has said that every medical marijuana dispensary in the state is illegal and will be shut down, may well become Attorney General," Armentano said. "So these people who want to retain the lifestyle they're accustomed to are not looking forward and seeing these potential political changes... instead they are waging a battle on people that should be their common allies."

Cooley promised to prosecute city-approved medical marijuana dispensaries at a narcotics officers convention in October 2009, stating, "The LA City Council should be collectively ashamed of their failure to grasp this issue. Undermining those laws via their ordinance powers is counterproductive, and quite frankly we're ignoring them." If elected Attorney General, Cooley would officially have the power to criminalize the sale of medical marijuana and conduct raids on dispensaries around the state.

How would Prop. 19 prevent Cooley or any Attorney General from enacting the same penalties upon non-medical marijuana dispensaries? As Armentano emphatically explained, "Because Prop. 19 makes marijuana, if it's possessed within certain amounts, if it's within certain regulations, legal. Not quasi-legal."

Medical marijuana dispensaries exist in a non-statutory gray area, recognized and allowed to operate by the state, but lacking legal power through established federal regulations. Without official standards protecting their rights to operate, medical marijuana dispensaries exist at the discretion of a city's government, giving a state Attorney General the authority to question their legality and shut them down. Prop. 19 leaves no such room for interpretation. "If you're over 21, it's legal," Armentano said. "If [Cooley's] opinion is simply 'I don't like marijuana,' he can't overturn the law."

De la Luz and Stoners Against Prop. 19 also warn that the initiative would lead to the "corporatization of marijuana," as small-time dealers see their wholesome mom-and-pop businesses shut down by Walmart-esque conglomerates taking over the market. Stop19.com devotes entire blog posts to Camel and Marlboro images doctored with lines like "Warning: A vote for Proposition 19 is a vote for the big tobacco takeover of cannabis production."

Armentano has more faith in both the consumer and the corporations. "When we look at the alcohol model, there's Coors and there's Budwesier, there's plenty of microbrews," Armentano said. "Some people who drink beer like Budweiser, some people buy it because it's the cheapest. Some people support microbrews. Some people don't make political statements with their beer. The consumer will decide."

As for the Stoners Against Prop. 19's "corporatization" promises, Armentano said, "No major large producer of marijuana is going to set foot in California until the federal government legalizes marijuana throughout the country. Why hasn't Phillip Morris cornered the medical marijuana market? There's no precedent of these things. I think a lot of these people who are putting out this rhetoric have a lot of self-interest." Rather than spouting conspiracy theories, Armentano said, small-time growers who want to make sure that they benefit from legalization would have to "actually get involved with the democratic process" and voice their concerns to local governments that choose to implement the initiative in their cities. "If you live in California and you live on a water line, guess what? It's taxed. The government regulates your water... and you get to vote on that. That's the way regulations are enacted on every other commodity. This is about treating marijuana the same."

In the end, Armentano said, "Prop. 19 isn't the problem. The problem is the way certain people define legal. There's a camp that seems to think legalization means an absence of regulations... some kind of free for all. You know what's a free for all? It's prohibition."

Unions as varied as ACLU, UFCW, and NAACP, among many others, continue endorsing Prop. 19. SEIU was the most recent to voice its support, stating, "Our government's chief responsibility must be to invest in jobs... the revenues raised by Prop. 19 will help avoid cuts to health care, home care, education and other services for children, families, the elderly and people with disabilities. These new revenues will help the state and local governments protect and invest in jobs we need to provide for our families." 

Nadia Prupis

Nadia Prupis is Truthout's Media Policy Reporting Fellow.

Last modified on Thursday, 23 September 2010 17:15